U.S. farmer-owned cooperative CHS has never had a major fire at its 110,000-barrels-a-day refinery in McPherson, KS. To make sure it stays that way, the company has invested in a well-equipped training field for its volunteer fire brigade.
Lonnie Roy Mullen, completing his first year as refinery fire chief, pleads guilty to reaping the benefits of a training initiative put in place years before his arrival.
"The fire chief before me really started this initiative," Mullen said. "He's the one who convinced management."
As for Mullen's contribution, he worked to win third-party accreditation for the field from the International Organization for Industrial Emergency Response and Fire Hazard Management (JOIFF), a group Mullen became familiar with while working as an industrial firefighter overseas.
"By gaining accreditation from JOIFF, our facility becomes recognized as a best-in-class training ground," Mullen said.
The CHS training field in McPherson is the only U.S. fire training facility to hold the JOIFF accreditation.
The 10-acre training field, located about half a mile from the refinery, comes complete with a combination multi-story burn building and high angle rope rescue prop, a four-level simulated process unit that stands 60 feet tall and a 24-foot diameter bulk storage tank, all used for live training burns.
Dominating the training field is the process unit, complete with two pumps, several exchangers, a pressure vessel and two columns, one standing more than 25 feet above the unit and the other standing 15 feet above the unit. The prop comes with 10 isolation points, actual working valves that firefighters must physically close to control the flames, Mullen said.
"Some of those valves are as much as 25 feet off the ground, meaning the firefighters have to negotiate stairwells and caged ladders to reach them," he said.
Even the rope rescue building is fitted with burn boxes both externally and, for search and rescue training, internally.
The storage tank prop, standing 14 feet tall, is mostly filled with water topped off with a layer of fuel. When ignited, the prop gives firefighters what will hopefully be their closest experience with a full-surface tank fire during their careers.
"It's a small tank but it at least gives the responders a feel of what needs to get done," Mullen said.
Finally, the field comes equipped with several simulated distillation columns used for confined space rescue training.
"The props can be fairly complex, even if they don't have the internal trays that capture the purified chemical compounds at the various levels of distillation," Mullen said.
All training conducted at the McPherson field is done in compliance with NFPA 1403, Mullen said.
Running Training Scenarios
At the fire field, training scenarios incorporate the actual apparatus that the brigade would use in an emergency on site, Mullen said. The refinery's 28-member brigade operates two industrial pumpers, a rescue/ hazmat unit, an ambulance, a rehab unit, four foam trailers and one quick attack vehicle.
"It's really important to me that the firefighters understand the full evolution," he said. "It's not just marching in with a hose line and making a block."
During training, responders arrive by fire truck, catch the nearest water supply and activate the deck guns for cooling. Depending on the scenario, they might come in underneath the deck gun streams with ground monitors to capture and hold the key valve fueling the fire.
"If it is determined that we need to block that valve, the firefighters then transition to ground lines and move in," Mullen said.
Actual first-hand experience teaches what differences to expect switching between the various nozzles and monitors available, he said. Conducting the training as a full evolution helps emphasize the importance of placement.
With an available pressure of 150 pounds per square inch, firefighters using the training field are limited to a maximum flow of 3,500 gallons per minute. However, by moving the training to a pond on the north side of the refinery, bigger flows are possible.
Runoff is diverted into two containment ponds and later collected by suction trucks to go through the refinery wastewater treatment plant. No untreated water is released from the property.
A mutual aid agreement between the refinery and the McPherson Fire Department gives municipal firefighters full access to the training field facilities. Likewise, surrounding firefighting agencies that have a mutual aid agreement with McPherson FD to use the field.
"The CHS refinery routinely partners with the city on a range of initiatives," Mullen said.
A Wide-Ranging Career
A firefighter since 1981, Mullen's career has been split between municipal and industrial fire protection. Spending his early years in wildland firefighting in his native California, Mullen graduated to working in Iraq helping to put together a fire protection program for U.S. military outposts. In 2006 he joined Industrial Emergency Services doing contract fire protection in locations such as Equatorial Guinea. After leaving IES in 2012 he worked in Germany and then Oman.
However, he gave up the international firefighting scene after 2017 to become a small-town fire chief in northwest Arkansas.
"In 2010 I saw my wife a total of 30 days for the entire year," Mullen said. "I just got tired of not seeing her anymore."
"CHS puts the well-being and safety of our people and communities first every day," Mullen said. "That means making sure we get the best training, best equipment and the best maintenance for that equipment."